The "rule number one of the web," according to Mashable, is "don't mess with the Oatmeal." Last week, Buzzfeed messed with the Oatmeal. Jack Stuef wrote a long post about the webcomic site, its creator Matt Inman, his background in shady SEO marketing, and his use of those same tactics in his comic business. In response, Inman posted an long, mostly handwritten response to his website, identifying one serious factual error and disputing several other contentions in the Buzzfeed piece. The internet was thrilled.
The response to Inman's response was overwhelming and gleefully positive. It was maybe the only thing civil libertarian blogger Glenn Greenwald and right-wing commentator Erick Erickson have ever agreed about. Several people referenced an episode of HBO's gritty crime drama The Wire in which a well-known thief kills a member of a drug gang that had attempted to assassinate him: "When you come at the king, you best not miss." (Inman is the king/murderous mercenary thief.)
Buzzfeed fucked up, and the internet piled on, eager to take down the rich new media company and support the solo viral comic artist it was bullying. It's true that Buzzfeed got something wrong. But the thing is, the Oatmeal is terrible: opportunistic and unfunny, trite and shallow; it's poorly rendered lowest-common-denominator treacle from a man unable to tell the difference between creative process and social media marketing.
The central thesis of Stuef's piece is that the Oatmeal wasn't "originally a labor of love, a slow process of [...] building an audience. It was always a business, always a play to known sources of Web traffic, whether for clients or for himself." He points at Inman's past as a marketer making his money from search-engine optimization tricks like highly shareable quizzes and illustrated "infographics" secretly filled with links that would game Google's page rankings. He cites a presentation Inman gave two years ago outlining the cynical strategy behind his creative process: "Find a common gripe... Create easily digestible content... Talk about memes and current events." And, in a version of the piece that only stayed up for an hour, Stuef writes about a profile he found on an obscure social media site — one that seemed to prove that Inman is a hard-right Republican, and not the liberal Obama supporter he presents himself as in his comics.
Stuef and his editors realized quickly after publication that the profile was fake, removed the offending section and issued a correction. But not before Inman had screen-grabbed the article, which he posted a few days later to his own site, heavily annotated in the handwriting font he uses for his comics. (He posted his screen-grab of the uncorrected article instead of a link to Buzzfeed, he wrote, "because BuzzFeed contributors are often paid on a per-page view basis." This is not true.) Inman rightly takes Stuef to task for his error. "All of this is completely moot," he wrote, bracketing the two paragraphs about the fake social media profile, "because Jack Stuef is a shitty writer who doesn't fact check."
It's not Inman's only grievance with Stuef's piece. Inman blames a controversial rape joke — to which he'd already written a peevish response blaming Daniel Tosh and thanking his critics for "censoring" him — on the birth of a niece and the death of a longtime reader. "A few years ago I wrote a comic for one of my readers who had been diagnosed with brain cancer," Inman writes in his response, posting the entire comic, in case you missed the point that he is a really good guy. (He doesn't, and didn't, apologize for the rape joke. Update: Inman did apologize for the panel, in a note that replaced the original, touchier note: "To anyone who was upset by it: I'm sorry.")
Later in the piece, when Stuef mentions that Inman has cleared over $500,000 in profit, he gave most of the money to buy his sister and her six kids ("FIVE of which [sic] are adopted, and two of [whom] are disabled") a house with $250,000 in cash. Inman doesn't want to "market [himself] as a philanthropist or some shit like that." He just wants you to know that even when he makes a lot of money, he's still just a good-guy regular cartoonist hoping to make you laugh.
In response to Stuef's claim that Inman rarely took on unpopular opinions, Inman cites some of his most offensive posts. One is about an abortion clinic; it takes no side and the punchline is a pun. Another is about eating horse meat. As far as I can tell, the offensive thing about "The Motherfucking Pterodactyl" is that the title uses the word "motherfucker." The last one is an atheist comic. These are comics that might be controversial in the real world; on the internet, and on Reddit especially, they're essentially mainstream.
While Inman claims he only did SEO work for a few months in his early 20s, the Guardian piece Stuef cited, written four years ago, when Inman was in his mid-to-late 20s, refers to him as an "online marketer." Inman's need to be seen as a simple cartoonist trying to make a living is clear in his response to Stuef; he doesn't deny that he earned half a million dollars in 2010, but insists that most of those earnings went to his sister and her six children.
That's great, but his whole "I just want to make comics and get paid for it. The less complicated the better" doesn't quite ring true when he also, by his own admission, runs a small business (employing an assistant, his mother, his stepfather, and three retired friends of his mother's, he says) that sells everything from signed prints of his art to lip balm. His claim that he doesn't have a publicist and it was his mother who declined Stuef's requests for an interview aren't true, Stuef says; it was a woman named "Amanda DiMarco." There is an Amanda DiMarco on LinkedIn as "PR and Business Development" for The Oatmeal. According one of Inman's pre-Oatmeal blog entries, his mother's name is Ann.
Maybe Inman sees "doing SEO" as fundamentally different from "online marketing," and therefore feels like he's still telling the truth. And maybe the Amanda DiMarco LinkedIn profile is another odd, fake, Inman-related profile on the internet. (Or maybe Inman's mother is shockingly young and goes by both "Ann" and "Amanda.") I don't know. I don't care. As far as I'm concerned it doesn't matter whether or not Inman is misrepresenting himself as a relatable, struggling artist. Inman's comics aren't bad because he's a hypocrite or a faker (though it doesn't hurt). Inman's comics are bad on their own merits.
He can't draw. This is admittedly not an obstacle to success on the internet, where the Hallmark-for-engineers margin scribblings of XKCD's Randall Munroe can engender a kind of slavish devotion, but at least Munroe's stick figures, fedoras and all, seem to reflect some level of warmth or personality; Inman's jagged illustrations are reminiscent less of their creator's character or humanity than of the easiest shortcuts in whatever vector-graphics program he's using.
That almost doesn't matter, though, because in many of Inman's comics the bulk of the space is taken up by his words, typed out in a special, terribly kerned Oatmeal handwriting font apparently designed to make his text as materially unreadable as it already is psychically. At the end of many of his comics — "How to Suck at Your Religion," for example — he appears to get bored with actually drawing, and finishes off with line after line of 40-point Oatmeal Handwriting type. Sometimes he barely even bothers with illustrations. The only thing that differentiates his comic "Why Nikola Tesla Was the Greatest Geek Who Ever Lived" from an illustrated essay is that it's white text on a black background, and Inman has hastily copied-and-pasted stars all over the graphic. It's indistinguishable from the hasty SEO-scam "infographics" — really just long, haplessly illustrated lists of facts — where Inman got his start.
But the subject matter for Oatmeal comics is even less interesting than the subject matter for those spammy infographics. His most popular comics (one of which is the atheism comic he cited as an reflecting an "unpopular opinion") mostly concern animals, grammar mistakes, and minor annoyances relating to the tech world (printers, Apple products, customer service, working from home — topics that have gone uncovered by comedians for too long). One is quite literally an internet-style infauxgraphic: "15 Things Worth Knowing About Coffee."
I don't think comedy needs an edge to be funny. I do think it needs originality. I imagine there's still possibly territory to be mined in the "dogs are silly" category. I don't think that "My dog: the paradox," his most popular comic ever, is really mining it. "[D]ogs aren't funny. You can't make dogs funny. It's impossible. People can't relate," Inman has said about this comic. But "My dog: the paradox" isn't really even trying to be funny — it's trying to be touching. The joke, such as it is, is "dogs are silly," but the point is Inman's ham-handed articulation of what people love about dogs. Inman's not interested in the funny part; he's interested in the how-do-people-relate part.
This, ultimately, is Inman's real failing: his inability to write comics that are his, from him, about him, by him, and not just comics that fill a space he's identified in the impossibly huge audience for content online. The Oatmeal doesn't feel like something from its creator's brain, marked by its creator's obsessions, driven by its creator's passions, the way even the worst newspaper strips do. It feels like something written by a committee. Or an algorithm.
Inman doesn't appear to realize this, though. "You seem to be confusing pandering with just making funny shit," he writes to Stuef. In Inman's mind, people don't laugh at good jokes, they laugh at things they relate to. This is sometimes true, but it's a bad theory of comedy. You can tell that Inman isn't a comedian when he attempts to defend his "fourth-grader filling out Mad Libs" joke strategy by claiming he "only did this when I used to write grammar comics, because it's REALLY goddamn hard to make a topic like semicolons or apostrophes funny[.]" But good comedians start with the jokes. They don't pick topics and then try to fill them out.
But that's how the Oatmeal works. Stuef found a presentation given by Inman in which he explained the six principles that he uses to pick ideas for Oatmeal comics:
- Find a common gripe
- Pick things everyone can relate to
- Create easily digestible content
- Create an infographic
- Talk about memes and current events
- Incite an emotion
"You don't watch much standup, do you?" Inman asks Stuef, sneeringly, about the six principles. "Most of this is basically just comedy 101." Not quite. It's maybe the way an alien would reverse-engineer the dynamic between a comedian and her audience. To me it sounds more familiar as blog post-writing tips. It sounds, even, a little bit like this:
Things that people like to share:
- Things that make them nostalgic
- Things that make them feel smart
- Things that make them seem funny
- Things that make them have an opinion
- Things that surprise them
- Things they didn't know
Other helpful tips:
That's a slide from a April presentation given by Buzzfeed's chief 90s-rememberer Matt Stopera, who does massive traffic for the site by only writing posts that follow those rules. Like Stopera's, Inman's process is backwards: he doesn't start with funny ideas and figure out how to direct them to the audience that will appreciate them. He starts with "shareable" and then figures out what falls into that category. Inman's list isn't Standup Comedy 101, it's Sharing 101. Writing A Blog Post 101. Social Media Marketing 101. Inman is the one confusing pandering with making funny shit, because he can't tell the difference.
The dynamic that Inman wanted to set up in his response to Stuef — the dynamic that the tech and media press responded to — was David and Goliath: lone, struggling webcomic artist of the people versus big, rich, traffic-obsessed media company. Per Inman, Stuef is offensive and incompetent; Inman is a dog-loving, house-buying geek. Buzzfeed writes its posts to get traffic; Oatmeal writes its posts to tell jokes. Buzzfeed is pandering viral content. The Oatmeal is comedy. Buzzfeed is cynical. The Oatmeal is pure. But that's just not true. The Oatmeal is Buzzfeed. He's just better at hiding it.